Versatile Harris Emerging As Defensive Star For No. 5 Oklahoma

Thursday, September 6th 2007, 3:47 pm
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ The unique position Nic Harris plays in Oklahoma's defense requires him to line up sometimes as a linebacker and other times as a safety.

The variety requires athletic ability and intelligence, but also an adaptability that Harris has needed both on the football field and during a tumultuous childhood he describes as involving little involvement with his parents and bouncing from house to house ``enough to where it wasn't stable.''

Instead of being bitter, Harris is plainspoken about his upbringing and determined not to let the cycle repeat itself.

``Just because I was thrown a curve ball, that doesn't mean I have to swing at it,'' said Harris, a junior. ``I never used my childhood as a crutch for me not excel or me not to progress into being whoever I am or whoever I'm trying to be.''

As the fifth-ranked Sooners (1-0) prepare to host Miami (1-0) on Saturday, Harris seems to be on the verge of stardom. He led Oklahoma last season with four interceptions, and in a 79-10 romp over North Texas last Saturday, he returned an interception 24 yards for a touchdown, recorded four tackles, one sack and two tackles for loss and forced a fumble.

``He's really coming into his own, which he did even last year (in) the second half of the year,'' Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. ``He's really feeling confident and sure of himself and making plays.''

It hasn't always come that easy for the 6-foot-3, 226-pounder from Alexandria, La. Last season, while playing as a fifth defensive back, he allowed Oregon's Bryan Paysinger to get well behind him and catch the winning touchdown pass in the Ducks' 34-33 win. The lapse overshadowed Harris' two interceptions in the game and since has served as motivation for Harris.

``If you don't have motivation, then you don't live, you just merely exist, so you have to be motivated toward something,'' said Harris, who is fond of motivational statements from star athletes including Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. ``If you want to be great, you've got to believe that you are great. It doesn't happen overnight.''

Harris said he had to develop self-motivational skills at an early age. As a child, he said when he realized that his parents weren't going to be around, he ``had to take it upon myself to become the individual that I wanted to be.''

That's not to say Harris hasn't had positive role models in his life. He credits his grandparents for taking him in and instilling in him a strong faith. Coaches would shuttle Harris to and from practice and make sure he stayed busy, ``because an idle mind is the worst thing a child could have.'' LaQuanda Harrell, who is not related to Harris, raised him for many years and is listed as his guardian.

``If you ever believe in the saying that it takes a village to raise a child, then I was literally that child,'' Harris said.

When Harris arrived at Oklahoma, coaches determined that he might be able to fill a void left by former All-America safety Roy Williams, who last played for the Sooners in 2001. Williams, now with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, developed into a similar hybrid player, going back and forth between linebacker and safety.

``It's a playmaking position,'' Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. ``It's extremely critical that he plays well for the rest of the defense to play well. He's right in the heart of the defense in regards to making it work.''

Harris smiles and laughs when it's suggested that many at Oklahoma refer to it as the ``Roy'' position.

``I guess that's the name it's dubbed,'' he said. `` ... It's a great position. It's a greater test of my athletic ability and my learning ability to be able to play a certain position that requires so much strength, skill and speed.''

Both aspects of Harris' role have their positives, he said. At linebacker, ``being in the box more, just playing within that space. You can keep everything contained.'' But then ``you go out and play safety and get to pick balls off. You go out there and have fun.

``I feel as though I'm trying to be a difference-maker every game. I try to do everything I possibly can that the coaches ask of me. ... I just try to come out and be that natural-born leader on the field.''